Defining the American Experience

This week, I was hoping to have a draft of my revised introduction completed. I’m going to miss that goal but just a little bit, but I did manage to hack out one of the more important sections central to not only introduction, but to my book. Here’s the original and I offer links to the revised sections below.

For those of you following this blog, you know that I’m writing a book tentatively titled The Archaeology of the Contemporary American Experience. Strangely enough, I left the definition of the contemporary American experience largely tacit in my book, and it was clear that reviewers found this disconcerting. So just as I made more obvious the temporal and spatial definition of the archaeology of the contemporary America, and the methods associated with its study, I decided to spell out more explicitly what I mean when I use the phrase “the American experience.”

Here is my effort:

Defining the American Experience 

So far in this introduction, we have considered how the archaeology of the contemporary world has to contend with the multiple temporalities that constitute the contemporary. We have also recognized that the late-20th and early-21st century introduced new concepts of space, particular the concept of global, supermodern, non-places that complicate and complement traditional views of the local. The multitude of temporalities that constitute the contemporary and startling new notions of spatiality require that archaeologists in and of the 21st century embrace a wide range of methods. On the one hand, conventional excavation and survey practices can and do reveal multiple temporal and spatial extents in relation to the archaeologist and these methods continue to play a familiar role in archaeology of the contemporary. On the other hand, archaeologists of the contemporary world have consistently recognized the challenge of global crises and active, developing sites through multisite approaches, digital and time-based documentation practices, ethnographic methods, and art. It is useful to note that the diverse methods associated with archaeology of the contemporary are not exclusive to this field and many of these practices have played a role in archaeology in general, but archaeology of the contemporary world has shown a greater eagerness to embrace new and sometimes even experimental approaches to capture the complexities of the modern moment.

In this book, this distinct understanding of time, space, and methods will inform how we understand the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In fact, the diversity of times, spatial scales, and methods is essential for exploring and defining a concept as complex as the American experience. On one level the American experience represents the experiences of Americans. As Stacey Camp has recently shown in her book The Archaeology of American Citizenship (2013), the idea of being American must extend beyond what it means to be a legal citizen and encompass the experience of all individuals living within the United States. Thus, the concept of an American experience necessarily embodies a wide range of legal status as well as the predictably wide range of encounters. Archaeologists have long understood the role of race, class, gender, age, and various regional identities in contributing to how individuals experience America. The state has also played a key role in defining the American experience through various positive, negative, and ambivalent encounters with institutions such as the military, education, prisons and internment camps, or the national borders. Recognizing that state institutions represent only one aspect of how groups and individuals experience being in America, archaeologists studying the 20th-century American experience have looked to consumer practices and goods especially with the rise of mass produced material culture as a medium through which collective and individual identity manifests (Mullins xxxx). From cars to Barbi dolls, Americans have regularly used consumer goods to both consolidate social standing and transmit the values across generations and in the community. Others have looked for evidence in labor practices in the same period for fundamental experiences that define the diverse encounters that constitute American life (Mattews xxxx). For these scholars, the factory, the mining camp, the company town, the urban slum, and the protest site represent the crucibles in which American experience and identity was formed. Others still have looked to the wide range of public rituals manifest in sports to religious architecture, coming of age practices, festivals and forms of commemoration as important loci for the American experience. In short, the diverse spaces and aspects of the American experience within the borders of the US creates an equally diverse range of encounters.

At the same time, archaeologists of the contemporary world recognize that the American experience is not confined to the limits of the nation-state, but manifests itself in geopolitical and economic outposts, flows through global supply chains, and follows the growing output of digital media. The most literal example of the American experience beyond the borders of the United States are the military installations and corporate outposts which housed workers and soldiers in American style suburbs (Chapter x). Other examples the global reach of the American experience are less tangible. For example, every Apple phone laden with applications, every streamed music video or game, and every major motion picture represents an expression of the American experience whether encountered in Singapore, Santiago, Athens, or Perth. The material traces of this globalized American experience, in turn, impact lives in the US and abroad in unexpected ways. In fact, as I am writing this introduction disruptions to the global supply chains brought about by the COVID pandemic have caused shortages in American supermarkets and made consumers worry about getting the latest gadgets and gifts during the holiday season. Such disruptions highlight America’s dependence on off-shore extractive industries, manufacturing, and, increasingly, disposal of waste. Miners for cobalt and tantalum in Congo (Chapter 4), factory workers housed in dormitories in China (Chapter 8), and processors of e-waste in Asia and Africa (Chapter 2) lives are as shaped by an American experience as suburban consumers in the United States or workers in the Bakken oil patch of western North Dakota. Finally, if the production and consumption of the American experience happens on the supermodern scale, it is hardly surprising that the crises that are transforming the American experience are global as well. From the series of 21st century megastorms fueled by global climate change to the pain and disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic, the American experience cannot exist outside of its global context.

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